Here’s How The CBS Evening News without Scott Pelley Can Innovate, If It Wants To

What happens in the executive conference rooms at CBS News headquarters on 57th Street stays inside those rather drafty rooms, the occasional leak to Page Six notwithstanding.

I don’t know what the poobahs there have in mind for the next iteration of their news broadcast, though from what I’ve read, the CBS Evening News might be due for a refurbishment.

Though I once served as a political consultant for CBS I am now just a viewer. I am, also, a news junkie, but more so, a journalism junkie, and even beyond that, I carry an irrational reverence for network evening newscasts. When I was a kid, I tried to convince my piano teacher to teach me how to play “The Mission,” John Williams’ NBC News theme.

“(E-D-F-A (beat) C-B-G-C.” )

CBS News injected vitality into its news division and earned profit for its parent company simply by tinkering with the format of its morning show — the changes to CBS This Morning seem radical, but the life of the show is distinguished less by its structural adjustments and more by the urgency, the knowing, flirtatious anchor relationships, and the smart content that vie for your attention. It has become the best morning news show on television. Maybe it’s the best news show, period. (Credit to its anchors, and to CBS News President David Rhodes, to Chris Licht, who now runs The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and to Ryan Kadro, the current E.P.) . Note well: it’s in third place! The third place show is driving the time-slot’s competitive pressures!

CBSTM’s producers make good decisions about what its viewers want to know, and need to know, when they wake up and tune in, and most compellingly, they’ve figured out how to persuasively and memorably present it to them. (The Eye-Opener is perhaps network news’s only iconic innovation in the past decade.) Human news consumption habits have evolved faster than anyone’s ability to keep up, but since sleep is still something most of us need, there will ALWAYS be a period when we wake up not knowing what happened during the past eight hours.

Most of us will turn off our CPAPs, grab for our phones, hover over the push alerts, scroll through our Facebook feeds and troll through our Twitter feed, but the network (or cable) morning news show fulfills function that tracks with a basic human need, and it’s going to stay relevant for a while.

Parts of it, anyway. I don’t know how many people watch it for two hours; I suspect the number is a tiny fraction of those who watch at least the part of it that the ratings companies can measure. All three morning shows have seen their ratings drop rather sharply since last year. (The election was good for local stations, for networks and for the cablers; the Trump administration has been good primarily for MSNBC and CNN.)

The evening news is…

Think of this way: how many of us need an evening daily news digest?

Virtually everyone who watches the news at night already knows what’s happened during the day. This has been true for a while — probably decades, thanks to news radio, to cable news, then to the Internet.

But inexplicably, the format of the network evening newscast has not changed in 50 years. The content hasn’t changed. An anchor, wearing dark colors, sits at a desk in a contrived, serious setting and reads a summary of what’s happened since the last time a CBS anchor spoke to us. The blandishments that accompany this format have changed; more motion graphics, different music, shorter packages to hang on to allegedly shorter attention spans, new anchors — but, really — it’s the same type of program for a viewer who really hasn’t needed that sort of program in years.

Given the ascendence of ubiquitous mobile, I don’t know if anyone under 40 can ever be induced to watch a major network at 6:30 or 5:30pm. Maybe the sunk cost fallacy does not apply to network news executives. If they can still squeeze ad revenue from their hardy but attritioned viewership, and they’ve got reason to be pessimistic that that any sort of change will be financially prudent in the short or long term, it makes sense not to innovate. It makes sense to let these flagship news broadcasts simply fade to black over time. In industryese, maybe they should stick to an OTA, non-time-shifted viewing format.

From the outside, though, I can play around with CBS’s money. At 38, I’m along the trailing edge of the generation that’s bridging OTA (over the air) you-tell-me-when-to-watch media consumption with OTT (over the top, meaning wireless, broadband, satellite) I-tell-you-that-I-want-to-watch-it-now programming choices.

So I want CBS to try something different — to dare think that something produced for an evening news broadcast can actually move markets and minds again.

For the CBS Evening News, CBS News can forget about capturing a moment; that’s something that cable news, that CBS’s own CBSN, that other platforms, do well. It can forget about covering the news of the day; by the time the broadcast hits air, that news has become mere content, and that content is stale and valueless. It can be humble about its claims to authority.

Instead, it can focus on imaginative storytelling. It can explain the relevance of the main story of the day. It can add reporting and value to that story. It can tell new stories that viewers haven’t heard of. Producers can produce packages that are time-slot agnostic, stories that can be repurposed and altered to adhere to the grammar rules that different digital platforms use today. Correspondents can team together to work on a single story, eschewing silly, archaic sig-outs and hard transitions. Stories can be told as they live; they begin, they have a middle, and sometimes, especially now, they don’t end. There is always more.

When you watch the evening news, you already know what’s going on. You want to know more. And so: I would propose, quite simply: give viewers more.

Below, an immodest proposal.


What say you, David Rhodes?